1. Kendrick Lamar - Alright / For Sale?
“To Pimp a Butterfly”’s standout track comes just after its most brutal. The screams and drunken blubbering of “u” fade up into a most hopeful, catchy hook. It’s telling that Black Lives Matter protesters in Cleveland chose “Alright,” rather than an angrier track to chant as they marched through Ohio. They -- and Kendrick -- were reclaiming their lives. Much of “To Pimp a Butterfly” is angry and hurt. Here, Lamar sees all the bad of the world laid out -- "Lookin at the world like, 'Where do we go?" and yet he grabs the future for himself anyway. I’m including both songs because those angelic backing voices continue into “For Sale,” becoming more hypnotic as the interlude progresses. “Alright” is God whispering into Lamar’s ear. “For Sale” is the Devil trying -- in a hook even sweeter-sounding than its predecessor -- to pull his attention the other way. “For Sale?” sounds just as the devil does in desperation -- hypnotic, cunning, relentless. How easy to just lean in, let all the bad of the world fall away.
2. Vince Staples - Summertime
Don’t let the Drake-era fool you: Rap rarely deals in the personal. “Feelings known to get you killed,” Vince Staples rap/sings in “Summertime.” Still he risks it, delivering 2015’s most personal rap song. On its surface, “Summertime” is a love song, a yearning to make a relationship last. But deeper truths thread through Staples’ confessions. What does it mean to be a young black man when your mom tells you you’re a king and history tells you you’re dispensable? I love everything about “Summertime” -- the fuzzy production, his baritone curving over lyrics both complicated and simple. But what sticks with me most is the feeling that a young man has just done the most difficult thing possible -- opened up and asked for connection.
3. St. Vincent - Teenage Talk
I’ve never liked St. Vincent before, but this song includes all my favorite non-rap lyrics of 2015. I’m bad with nostalgia, and listening to this piece, I can feel so distinctly what it was to be a teenager in the South, romping around town with my best friend Lizz. “That was before we had made any terrible mistakes.” It’s all there -- the infinite goodness of being young and drunk and closer to friends than you’ll ever be as an adult. And yet, as the song progresses, Annie Clark delivers the killer lines that only an adult could know to be true: “I don't think the past is better, better / Just ‘cause it's encased in glass.” All those memories become lies that haunt you. Life was never that simple, but the belief that it was will make you forever unsatisfied later in life. The final stanza gnawed at me all year: “How do you see me now? Now that I'm a little bit older? Nevermind the albatross smoldering on my shoulder.”
4. Kendrick Lamar - The Blacker the Berry
I can think of no more exhilarating musical moment this year than when Lamar released “The Blacker the Berry.” You thought he went commercial with “i?” This track came out roaring, promising that Lamar gives zero f*** about selling singles. It was a harbinger of the monster, challenging record to come, unabashed and percussive, all the anger of 2015 distilled. If “i” was Martin Luther King, “The Blacker the Berry” was Malcolm X: “Came from the bottom of mankind: My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide. You hate me, don't you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture. You're f** evil. I want you to recognize I'm a proud monkey." The song builds and builds as Lamar promises he'll tell you by the end of the song why he is the biggest hypocrite of 2015. Those final lines make me break down every time. You think he's angry? “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a n*** black than me?”
5. Drake - Know Yourself
He’s rapping celebration, running around with money and friends, but the creeping, heavy-lidded beat suggests that double-entendre of “WOEs” is intentional. Is this dude happy? I preferred imagining a physical embodiment of pain, a man crashing through life with sadness in a sidecar.
6. Justin Bieber - Where Are U Now / Sorry
Different songs, but addicting for the same reasons -- Bieber’s soothing voice anchors Skrillex’s tropical vibes. These are the kinds of infectious dancehall anthems that make you move unabashed.
7. Tame Impala - Let it Happen
The year’s most sonically satisfying song. So lush.
8. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Sunday Candy
Chance the Rapper doesn’t need many lines to paint a full portrait of his grandmother. He’s an economical rapper, able to tell the story of his own life and the matriarch who kept him in line with only 11 bars. He even sneaks in a line reminding you that she is a singular woman -- "You singing, too, but your grandma ain't my grandma.” His is a spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child type, a church bound Chicagoan who paid and lit his way.
9. Vince Staples - Lift Me Up
Each verse is dense with story. He's talking about big issues -- race relations, wealth, changing social classes, capitalism -- but he manages to paint neat little character portraits in here, too. He knows the contradictions that come with being a banger and a rapper: "We love our neighborhood, so all my brother bang the hood ... All these white folks chanting when I asked 'em where my n*** at? Goin' crazy, got me goin' crazy, I can't get wit' that. Wonder if they know, I know they won't go where we kick it at."
10. Alabama Shakes - Gimme All Your Love
This song doesn’t need many lyrics to be powerful. Brittany Howard’s voice veers from rasp to sword, cutting through the organ and guitar and all else clattering here. The little music solo that starts at 2:15 is one of my favorite parts of any song this year.
11. D’Angelo & The Vanguard - Really Love
He has the most delicate touch.
12. Miguel - Coffee
13. Erykah Badu - Cel U Lar Device
Just when we grew tired of “Hotline Bling,” Badu flipped and slowed it down.
14. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Necessary Evil
15. Carly Rae Jepsen - All That
As if Blood Orange songs weren’t good enough sun by Dev Haynes, he one-ups his own self by handing the microphone over to Jepsen.
16. Tame Impala - The Less I Know The Better
18. Mura Masa - Lovesick
19. Zhu X Skrillex X They - Working for It
20. Selena Gomez - Good for You
21. Alabama Shakes - Don’t Wanna Fight
22. Vince Staples - Lemme Know (featuring Jhene Aiko)
23. Janelle Monae & Jidenna - Yoga
Like a Rihanna song, only better. Those tongue-twisting Jidenna bars are the stuff of summer fun
24. The Internet - Just Sayin’
25. D’Angelo & The Vanguard - Another Life
26. Jeremih - Impatient
I can’t believe he’s not more of a star. His songs have the best of The-Dream and Trey Songz with a better, rangier voice. He sounds his best here. I would have placed this song higher if it didn’t have that gross Ty Dolla $ign rap.
27. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Miracle
28. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-love
The thesis-statement for a beautiful concept album on polyamory starts off with one hell of a line: “Multi-Love checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room.”
29. Young Thug - Constantly Hating
Like Little Wayne, only better. I always feel a little guilty vibing to Young Thug, but he is just so technically skilled. He has the kind of naturally weird voice Fetty Wap dreams and tinkers to have.
30. Erykah Badu - Phone Down
There’s basically one lyric in this song -- “I can make you put your phone down” -- but in these cell-obsessed times, is there any greater declaration of love?
31. With You - Ghost (featuring Vince Staples)
32. Kendrick Lamar - King Kunta
So many of the stories about people of color tend to focus on the struggle, the moment Kunta Kinte’s foot is chopped off. Look beyond, Lamar urges. “Black man takin’ no losses. B*****, where were you when I was walkin?”
33. Vince Staples - Norf Norf
34. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Slip Slide
The return of Busta Rhymes!
35. Drake - Back to Back
The return of the rap battle! This is LOL funny, hashtag rap turned smart barbs. It’s so not serious music in a year heavy on the heavy, but Drake is in on the joke.
36. Missy Elliott - WTF (Featuring Pharrell)
I can’t think of many comebacks as satisfying as this one. It’s as epic and danceable as Missy ever has been.
37. Kamasi Washington - Re Run Home
The most epic song on “The Epic.” This song is clash and restraint, Washington’s tenor sax winds and climbs, skats then pulls back. It is the sound of having played a whole sweaty set in a club. I can never listen to another song right after.
38. Calvin Harris - How Deep is Your Love (featuring Disciples)
Can’t help dancing to this.
39. Kerbside Collection - Boganger
This Australian jazz funk put out a super solid album this year. This is the standout track.
40. Grimes - California
41. The Weeknd - The Hills
Maybe we believed after “House of Balloons” that Abel Tesfaye would grow out of the all dark scenarios. “The Beauty Behind the Madness” makes clear he hasn’t. He isn't looking for love or anything real. I can’t think of many sadder lines this year than this: “When I’m f***** up, that’s the real me.”
42. Jamie XX - I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) (featuring Young Thug)
This is all sonic pleasure. If vile lyrics dampen the mood, but I try to tune the words out, hearing Young Thug’s crazy voice as just another slap-happy instrument in this polyphony.
43. D’Angelo & The Vanguard - Back to the Future (Part I)
44. Jay Prince - Polaroids
Smooth-grooving hook that sounds like a ‘90s throwback
45. Grimes - Flesh Without Blood
46. Vince Staples - Might Be Wrong
Vince Staples pulls back from storyteller mode to analyze the world of violence around him, a world in which black men who have nothing still have a lot to lose. Maybe gang violence or crime will kill him. Why risk it? The song’s most heartbreaking line reveals: "You should seen the crib, though, so fucking nice ..."
47. Demi Lovato - Cool for the Summer
48. Jeremih - Oui
49. Courtney Barnett - Depreston
50. The Electric Peanut Butter Company - Mr. Pink
51. Raury - Her
52. Grimes - Art Angels
53. Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion
54. Drake - Legend
55. Erykah Badu - Hello (Featuring Andre 3000)
56. Seoul - Stay With Us
57. Leon Bridges - Coming Home
58. Fetty Wap - Trap Queen / My Way
60. The Weeknd - Often
61. Jeremih - Pass Dat
62. Kamasi Washington - Final Thought
63. Mark Ronson - Feel Right (Featuring Mystikal)
64. Jay Prince - The Trip (Featuring Fabienne)
66. Carly Rae Jepsen - I Really Like You
67. Chvrches - Afterglow
68. Jamie xx - Gosh
69. A.CHAL - Gazi
70. Adelle - Hello
71. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Go
72. Post Malone - White Iverson
73. Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean?
74. Rihanna - FourFiveSeconds (Featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney)
75. Hudson Mohawke - Ryderz